plus ATN calls for uni accountability on student outcomes

Griffith U’s new student job scheme

and can’t find a plumber? never mind, ask a personal trainer

Cold comfort

The Universities Australia board met in Canberra yesterday and what a jovial gathering it must have been as VCs surveyed a policy vista as frozen as the landscape. Simon Birmingham deregulated course flagship proposal sailed about as long as the Vasa (the chief scientist explains here CMM March 3) and we are yet to hear what his new shadow Tanya Plibersek will do with Labor’s previous promises (CMM Monday). Optimists suggest a clean policy slate gives UA a chance to write up its own objectives. Realists counter that the problem is that they will be wiped away by the Senate crossbench.

Jobs for all

Griffith University’s 2017 programme to focus on helping graduates with employment skills (CMM July 22) is only part of the plan. Yesterday the University of Warwick’s Unitemps announced a franchise at Griffith U. Unitemps places students in work on and off campus and is a for-profit product for participating universities. It also “enables you to offer students valuable work experience, leading to better employability prospects and greater financial independence.” Not to mention the signal it sends to students that the university is really committed to helping them build careers.

Wed July 27

Keeping innovation ticking-over

With the election over funding is flowing with Education Minister Birmingham announcing this morning a cash stream under the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. There is $16m for ten projects in areas from bioscience to telecommunications, urban infrastructure to health. When it looked like NCRIS would run out of cash during the deregulation debate a Senate committee called on research infrastructure experts to talk about the consequences if their kit was not renewed. CMM did not understand much they said but certainly got the impression that NCRIS is essential. It is the same now, CMM does not have a clue what a heavy ion accelerator does but if ANU says it needs $250 000 to keep its one accelerating I’m sure Senator Birmingham is right to hand over the dosh. One grant CMM does know a tiny bit about is the case for increasing supercomputing capacity at the National Computational Infrastructure. It was 24th biggest in the world in 2012 and as of the end of last year had slumped to 72nd. It needs more grunt if Australia is to keep up. Without NCRIS the prime minister’s innovation agenda would be light on for heavy duty research power so how fortunate that Christopher Pyne found the cash to keep it going. (Pyne? Oh come on you remember Chris, personality bigger than a Barossa shiraz.)

(Physically) fit and (mentally) well

Seanna Gall and colleagues from the University of Tasmania and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute find people with a healthy lifestyle (weight, grog, diet and life balance under control) are significantly less likely to have a first depressive episode over five years while the same lifestyle factors are significantly more likely to deteriorate among people with a history of depression. The findings are based on a five year longitudinal survey of people in their 20s and 30s. “Our results suggest that healthy lifestyles may not only reduce cardiovascular disease but also promote mental health,” they say.


Astute ATN ideas

The Australian Technology Network recognises the potential of Christopher Pyne’s university performance website, QILT to create effective comparisons across all institutions. By including Tax Office data QILT could create; “a much more comprehensive and accurate picture of the ultimate value of a university education than relying solely on graduate surveys. Such tracking would also provide a future evidence base for determining fair and equitable costs and repayment schedules for university graduates.” Excellent idea.

ANU economist Rabee Tourky is also pleased with the ATN’s proposal for ensuring university accountability for student outcomes. “It adopts the Pitchford-Tourky skin-in-games HECS reform, linking future fee to performance targets for universities,” he tweeted yesterday. In it’s submission to Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s policy paper (CMM yesterday) the ATN suggests; “universities should be held accountable for student success and actively support completion … One way of ensuring accountability from universities could be introducing performance based targets (eg in regards to completions, per centage of graduates employed), in order to qualify for increasing student fees.”

The plan, “would support the expansion and maintenance of the demand-driven system, but would address some of the concerns around low completion rates.”

Professor Tourky with his ANU economics colleague Rohan Pitchford have made the case for tying funding for students to performance for some years. In May Tourky proposed a model where student fees were tied to enrolment numbers allowing universities to vary strategies, (CMM May 18). Splitting funding between enrolments and outcomes could surely be added on.

The case for such an approach is apparent in last week’s paper from L H Martin Institute metric mavens, Frank Larkins and Ian Marshman, who demonstrate how the sector has used demand driven funding to increase teaching and learning income, up 50 per cent between 2009 and 2014. This has not necessarily led to a lot of unsuited students failing courses, Universities Australia suggests undergraduate attrition is stable at 19 per cent or so over time. However this is still a waste of a bunch of private and public money. Linking funding to undergraduate outcomes might lead to fewer students starting but failing and some budget savings.

Chief Scientist-728x210

Edith’s Eagles

Edith Cowan U is very pleased that it’s sport science and football students are “helping the West Coast Eagles deliver better on-field performances.” With five straight wins and a place in the eight there’s credit to go round. The university will be insufferable if the Eagles are premiers.

VET success (especially if you want a personal trainer)

The estimable National Centre for Vocational Education Research has  released the second annual report of total voced activity (prior to 2015 only public sector data was reported). The new data continues last year’s optimistic outcome, showing 4.5m working age Australians undertook training. And half of them are investing their own funds in the future with around 2million people paying for their own training. The data also dispels the myth that private providers are all spivs, making a quick quid from bodgie courses. In fact, the national training effort would collapse without the non-government sector, which accounts for 66 per cent of students. As Patrick Korbel and Josie Misko pointed out last week, the private provider section of the system is largely stable, (CMM July 19).

The new national numbers also offer a comprehensive guide to where the nation’s skill base will be in the next few years, which is not where it once was. The highest traditional trades group was the construction, plumbing and services package with 205 000 enrolments, compared to business services with 457 000. But if you worry about not finding a young plumber at least there will be no shortage of personal trainers, with 128 000 enrolments in sport, fitness and recreation.

Out in front

The University of New South Wales has announced leaders of its first two ‘grand challenges … an initiative to establish the university at the forefront of debate and policy response to the biggest issues of our time.” Professor Matthew England oversees climate change and Professor Jane McAdam will lead the refugees and migrants project. Biologist Rob Brooks is academic lead for the whole challenge project.


Ways to un-block grants

A big issue in Ian Watt’s review of research funding is amalgamating half a dozen block grant programmes and in June the feds issued a discussion paper on how to do it. (If Tim Minchin wants a project after Matilda the music theatre rights are undoubtedly available). It did not get a rave review from those wonkiest of wonks at the Innovative Research Universities group which found it was overly-complicated and did not leave institutions alone to manage their affairs (CMM, June 21).

Now the NTEU has reviewed the paper and made a similar assessment; “the government has simultaneously sought to reduce the number of funding programs while proposing to create greater complexity around the rules that determine how funding can be spent and how outcomes are measured and assessed.”

But the union’s big concern is to match institutional autonomy with “transparency and public accountability.” The submission calls for research funding to be part of negotiations between institutions and an independent agency, “with statutory planning and funding responsibilities for higher education.”
“This independent body would both protect the allocation of research funding from politicisation and uphold the principle of institutional autonomy by being responsible for developing robust and broadly accepted principles about the purposes of the Australian national research system.”